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100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols

King's College Choir Cambridge, Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: Various dates
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2018
Total duration: 106 minutes 26 seconds

This album features new recordings by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and older recordings taken from the live BBC broadcasts of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. These historical recordings, most of which come from the BBC archive, have not been heard since the original broadcasts.

Studio master customers: Please note that the live BBC recordings comprising the second part of this collection were recorded at 16-bit 44.1 kHz and it is at this resolution that they are included in the 24/96 download.


‘It's fascinating to trace the evolution of the choir's sound over 60 years and three music directors … as custodians of a national treasure, the choir takes versatility and tradition in its consummate, unflappable stride’ (BBC Music Magazine)
In 1903 a shy, awkward, clever undergraduate arrived at King’s College with a scholarship to read History. Eric Milner-White was the son of a lawyer and a businessman. After he graduated he was ordained, rather against the expectations and hopes of his family. He served in parishes in south London and then in 1912 he returned to King’s as Chaplain.

Of his distinguished war service as an army padre Milner-White never spoke. It seems that he had led stretcher-bearers over the top again and again to bring back the wounded from no man’s land. On his appointment as Dean at King’s in 1918 the College asked him to set out his thoughts on the services in the Chapel. As he himself confessed, Milner-White provided the governing body not so much with a discussion paper as with a vision of what the worship at King’s might be. This was not merely a college chapel, he reminded them. The architecture, the musical resources and the unending stream of young men passing through the University gave King’s ‘extraordinary potentialities for the whole religious life of England’. Being a private chapel, and so ‘free from the ecclesiastical authority which governs even the most “live” cathedrals’, it could take a lead in liturgical reform and make experiments.

Milner-White was fired by his love for this place; by the horror he had experienced in the trenches; by the disillusion and cynicism of the young men who surrounded him. Among his suggestions to the College were a number of ‘occasional services’, such as an annual memorial service for College men who had fallen in the war, with a special setting of three sonnets by a Kingsman, Rupert Brooke, who himself had died. He wanted to introduce a short service of admission for each new chorister. He also wished for a ‘richer provision for the church seasons’. Milner-White wanted more ‘colour, warmth and delight’ in the services. He need not burden the members of the governing body with all the details he had in mind; perhaps they would allow him to use his discretion. They did, and before the year was out he had devised a carol service for Christmas Eve.

This would be outside term, of course, so there would be very few students about. But this was part of his wider plan. The carol service would be primarily a gift to the City of Cambridge. He took as his model the service that had been devised by the first Bishop of Truro, E W Benson. It had first been used on Christmas Eve in 1880 in the wooden shed that was used while the Cathedral at Truro was being built. The service consisted of a sequence of nine lessons—as was the custom at the greatest feasts in the Middle Ages—that were read by officers of the church from the most junior (a chorister) to the most senior: at Truro, the Bishop; at King’s, the Provost. Between the readings were sung carols by the choir and congregational hymns. Milner-White invited a member of the Free Churches in Cambridge to read one of the lessons and the Chaplain to the Mayor of Cambridge another at that first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918. Money from the collection at the service was not to be retained just for the work of the College and the Chapel, but it was also to be shared with the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society and the Cambridge Children’s Convalescent Home.

The service quickly became very popular in Cambridge, and after the broadcasts began in 1928 it became famous. Soon the College annual report was telling old members that ‘our carol service was again broadcast to all parts of the world’, and in 1936 that ‘we had a large congregation for the carol service this year. It was broadcast to every continent’. Not only were carols much loved, but the singing was of a very high standard.

It was not just that the singing was very good, nor even just the astonishing acoustic of the Chapel. There had never been singing quite like this. In 1880 the governing body had agreed to establish choral scholarships and very gradually since then the lay clerks had been replaced by members of the College, nearly all of them undergraduates. The last lay clerk, grey-haired old Mr Collins, had died in office in 1928, just before the first broadcast. So instead of men varying in age from their twenties to their seventies perhaps, such as one found in most cathedral and college choirs in England, the King’s singers in the back row now were all aged between eighteen and twenty-two.

The Director of Music for that first broadcast had been A H Mann, ‘Daddy’ Mann as he was universally known. He had been organist since 1876—he was seventy-eight at the first broadcast—and was respected and much loved. But by the 1920s his performances, as everyone realised, even the choristers, were old-fashioned in their Dickensian drama and vehemence, with pianississimos and fortississimos all over the place and drawn-out rallentandos and long-held diminuendos.

Mann, the son of a weaver, had been a chorister at Norwich Cathedral and then an apprentice to the Organist there. Boris Ord, who succeeded him when he died, in office, in November 1929, was the son of a Kingsman, and a former organ scholar at Corpus Christi College. The performances of the choir in the 1930s were anti-Romantic, consistent with a post-war distrust of high-flown rhetoric. (In 1928 Ord had conducted a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.) The singing was also of a piece with particular strands emphasised in the education the singers were receiving. The ensemble was extremely disciplined, with ‘t’s’ and ‘d’s’ synchronised with unerring precision. For the education received in Cambridge was one that encouraged team spirit and strict discipline; showmanship was distrusted. Owen Chadwick, one of the University’s outstanding rugby players in Cambridge in the 1930s—he was to become a clergyman and the most distinguished church historian of his day—explained that he liked to play hooker because there in the scrum ‘you can do your good anonymously, with no sense of display’; he did not wish to tear about on the field where people could watch him ‘doing noble things and all that’.

So it was with the choir. The timbre of the singing was unforced; even in forte there was no sense of strain nor any emotional outpouring. Expressive gestures were intense but subdued. Tempos were almost invariably steady. Vibrato was avoided. The tuning was immaculate. The sounds shone with an unearthly silvery glitter.

During the Second World War, news reached Cambridge of secret listeners in Belgium, Holland and Czechoslovakia to the Christmas Eve service, and of services of lessons and carols arranged in German and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. In one camp in Japan a curtain had risen on a man at a desk reading a script. ‘This is the BBC Overseas Broadcasting Service,’ he said, ‘and we are taking you to a college chapel somewhere in England.’ And another curtain rose on two lines of prisoners, dressed in improvised white costumes made out of sheets, meant to look like surplices. They sang carols to the accompaniment of camp-made instruments, and they prayed for peace and goodwill over all the earth.

In a ten-minute film about the Blitz made by the Ministry of Information in London for American audiences—‘today England stands unbeaten, unconquered, unafraid’—the commentator explained that on Christmas Eve ‘England does what England has done for a thousand years: she worships the Prince of Peace’ and the film cut to a King’s treble singing ‘Come and behold him, born the King of Angels’. The singing at King’s had entered the consciousness of the English as no other choir had ever done.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the long-playing disc was able to disseminate the sounds of King’s as never before. Boris Ord made the first few, including the first LP of the Christmas carol service released in 1954. The second was released in 1959 and the third in 1965, though the technology of the time required that all these be abbreviated versions. It was only with the fifth recording, released in 1999 on two CDs, that the whole service was included.

Sir David Willcocks, who succeeded Ord in 1957, introduced new descants and arrangements into the Christmas Eve service that were taken up enthusiastically by a great many choirs when they appeared in the songbook series Carols for Choirs, the first volume of which was published in 1961. His arrangements were deftly written and extremely clever. The descant to the verse beginning ‘Sing, choirs of angels’, for example, in O come, all ye faithful, began with an imitation of the well-known refrain of Ding! dong! merrily on high, a delightful conceit for all choristers.

Boys and men loved to sing these descants and were able to convey their pleasure, the joyousness of carol singing. With the descants in the matchless acoustic of King’s, the trebles were able to ride over a full organ and vast congregation with thrilling effect. Sir Philip Ledger, the Director of Music between 1974 and 1982, and his successor, Stephen Cleobury, also wrote their own arrangements and descants. Once in royal David’s city, While shepherds watched, Unto us is born a Son, O come, all ye faithful and Hark! the herald angels sing, all sung in the service of 1918, have continued to ring out, newly minted, with undiminished intensity.

The carol In dulci jubilo was also sung that first year; God rest ye merry, gentlemen in 1919. The only original composition by a Director of Music that has been heard over and over again—indeed it was his only published composition—is Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybounden. It was first heard in 1955. Simon Preston, who wrote an arrangement of I saw three ships, was Sir David’s first organ scholar. Sir David had used a number of carols by living composers, Can I not syng but hoy? for example, by Francis Jackson, born in 1917, the Organist of York Minster between 1946 and 1982.

More than half a century after the singing on LP of King’s under Ord and Willcocks, the evolution of the style today is clear. The tone can be just as otherworldly as in the 1950s. But the singing belongs to another age. It need not be so anonymous. In certain works, Stephen Cleobury may encourage greater spontaneity and allow individual voices and timbres to colour the overall texture, to become more assertive, and not to dissolve themselves. Sometimes you hear an expressive group of individuals generating tremendous energy and excitement.

Some of the differences that are perceptible may arise from singing more in different languages. Under Ord and Willcocks the choir sang in English and Latin. Music by Bach and Brahms would usually be performed in English translation. In recent times music by these composers would nearly always, at least in the usual Chapel services, be sung in German and there would be occasional performances too of the German Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by Heinrich Schütz. But crucially it was Latin, with its pure vowels, which has been sung much more under Stephen Cleobury’s direction than previously, with regular Latin masses and occasional settings of the evening canticles in Latin. In recent years there have also been carols in German, French, Spanish, Latvian, Welsh, Swedish and Church Slavonic.

The style of some of the carols themselves has been very different from any of those heard in the middle decades of the last century. On his appointment Cleobury began commissioning a new carol each year for the service, often from a composer who had earned a reputation as a composer of orchestral works or pieces for other kinds of large instrumental groups or operas, and was not necessarily known at all, or not known exclusively, in the world of Anglican music.

Sometimes these composers had been students at King’s, like Judith Weir, Thomas Adès, and Huw Watkins. Bob Chilcott had been a treble as well as a choral scholar at King’s. John Rutter was signed up by a publisher to write carols and carol arrangements while he was still a student at Clare College, next door to King’s. Carl Rütti is a Swiss composer who came to England as a postgraduate pianist and organist and was enthused by the choral singing of the English. Among the composers recorded here is James Whitbourn, also a television producer, who has acted as Music Producer for the TV programme, Carols from King’s, every Christmas for twenty years.

Stephen Cleobury’s carol commissions have been full of rhythmic and tuning obstacles of all kinds. The Fayrfax Carol is by no means the most difficult but requires all the parts to divide and includes a top B for a solo treble. The singers in 2018 are certainly more expert musicians than their predecessors in 1918. At that time their main duties, essentially their only duties, were to sing the Chapel services. In the twenty-first century they sing in concerts all over the world and have frequent recording sessions. Each singer now has individual singing lessons.

But just as in 1918, the twenty-first century men and boys of King’s are not standing up there on a platform on Christmas Eve, striving to impress an audience. They are half-hidden in the choir stalls, attempting to voice the thoughts and hopes and aspirations of a community of listeners, losing themselves and sometimes, perhaps, finding themselves, in music-making of unforgettable beauty.

Timothy Day © 2018

Picture of Stephen Cleobury © Kevin LeightonMy first awareness of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols came during one of the Christmas ‘stay-overs’ during the time that I was a cathedral chorister at Worcester in the early 1960s, when I heard David Willcocks (himself recently translated back to King’s from Worcester) interviewed on radio about the forthcoming King’s carol service. I would not have imagined then that I myself would ever inherit the privilege and responsibility of directing the music at King’s, but his words left a lasting impression upon me, especially one of the exchanges in the interview:

Question: ‘When do you start rehearsing for the carol service?’
Answer: ‘In a sense we are rehearsing all the time [for our daily services]; the actual music for Christmas Eve we work on in December.’

This has been a very helpful guiding principle for me.

When I was appointed to King’s in 1982, and before I took up the reins, I visited Cambridge and spent a day with Philip Ledger. This was for ‘briefing’, and long before the days of induction processes and mentoring. I remember his saying that ‘there will only be two people in the world who will be able to tell you what it’s like to direct the music for the Christmas Eve service.’ Sadly, neither is still with us, but David and Philip could not have been more supportive of me. I was greatly sustained in my endeavours by both of them.

I have seen myself as being the guardian of a precious tradition and have not sought radically to reform it but, rather, to nourish it. Looking back over the past 35 years or so, I see three strands in this connection. I have written descants to the well-known hymns. Both Philip Ledger and I had interesting experiences in this regard. When Philip handed out copies of his own new descants to the choristers at a rehearsal, one of them said ‘we always do the descants by Mr Willcocks’. Another quickly came to the rescue, saying, ‘but each new Director of Music writes his own’. In my case, I have received letters asking that I revert to the ‘proper’ (i.e. Willcocks) descants. In practice I have kept a mixture of descants by all three of us in play. This is certainly not the place for a detailed evaluation of them, but nothing, for me, surpasses the seventh chord supporting ‘Word of the Father’ in the Willcocks version (though Simon Preston, formerly a chorister and organ scholar at King’s, told me that this chord had been in use in the time of Boris Ord). Another Kingsman, the conductor Christopher Seaman, has dared me to bring in the low pedal D half a bar earlier in the final verse of the Willcocks ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but I have never summoned up the courage!

I have also sought, as I have done in our service repertoire, to broaden the range of music performed, both in terms of style and period, and of nationality. Indeed, ‘early’ music provides many of the best examples of the true carol, with its sequence of verses and refrains. Stainer and Bell’s Musica Brittanica is a rich source of these.

In neither of these areas have I done what had not been done before, but it seemed to me that a noble tradition needs to be nourished regularly with new growth. To be sure, music had been specially written for the Christmas Eve service, but I decided that I would commission a new work each year from a leading composer, one who was not necessarily known principally as a choral composer, but whose reputation across a wide range of genres would add lustre, and, indeed, musical interest, to the sequence of pieces which I was to select annually. The first 25 or so of these have been recorded by the Choir for EMI, and most of the rest on our own label. Some of them appear on the historical CD in this release, and in two cases, we hear the actual premiere performance (Adès and Weir, both members of King’s). In my early years I received some quite hostile letters about ‘nasty modern music’, but I think the annual commission has now become something which people expect, and are, indeed, interested in.

Listening to this archive of carols has been a fascinating experience: the palpable calm and beauty of some of the earlier years giving way to a greater variety of mood and expression; the improving behaviour of the congregation, now less likely to spoil a recording with coughing and spluttering; and the disappearance of the gathering note at the beginning of each hymn verse, dropped early in the time of David Willcocks, but still heard in some of the early recordings.

Also of note is the changing manner of pronunciation, not only of English (and this is even more apparent in the lessons, some of which we’ve made available online), but, especially in Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem, on which I have done some research over the years, and which is now done differently in this respect than at the premiere.

Finally, taking inspiration from Eric Milner-White’s Bidding Prayer, which, with the continuing use of the Authorised Version of the Bible, has mercifully escaped the of attention of the liturgical reformers, it has been my ‘joy and delight’ to be associated with the Festival over all these years.

Stephen Cleobury © 2018

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